Sitting in my room on a self-isolated morning, I’m immersed in a small alternate reality that lives in my phone. On the small, glowing screen, I’m not a writer, but a young architect preparing for the job interview of a lifetime.
Looking through my phone like a next-gen viewfinder, I take in my digital surroundings — a cute New York City bedroom decked out in modern furniture, complete with a fire escape and a couple of milk crates. It’s a far cry from my actual environment, where I haven’t worn pants or real shoes for days. On my screen, I can see a chic wardrobe of jewel-toned outfits, including what I learn is the same purple suit that I wore to my college admission interview. On social media, I upload a photo of the jacket, which my sister, Inez, thinks is absurd; I promise to buy new clothes with my first paycheck. She sends me a private message and jokes that I’ll only be a diversity hire — the kind of familial snipe that siblings barely get away with.
In the real world, I don’t have a sister, nor do I own a suit. In phone world, my name is Carmen, and I’m gunning for a job at an enigmatic architecture firm called Mesmer & Braid. As I move my iPhone around to see more of Carmen’s virtual bedroom, I second-guess every object that appears on the screen, peeping around my phone to make sure it isn’t actually there. Even after a lifelong diet of science fiction, this simple experience makes me feel like I’m being cognitively cleaved in two.
This is HoloVista, a new kind of mixed reality game from new media storytelling platform Aconite. Though partly inspired by the 2016 culture bomb that was Pokémon Go, HoloVista has a decidedly more experimental crew, led by creative luminaries Nadya Lev and Star St. Germain, and the kind of aesthetic polish that you’d normally find in a high-end fashion spread. Lev is an established photographer who co-founded the alt-culture magazine Coilhouse, and St. Germain is an accomplished art director, illustrator, and developer with a background in theatre design. The pair set about building a formidable development team, including game veterans Jay Treat and Scott Jon Siegel, lead artist Blake Kathryn, award-winning narrative designer Whitney “Strix” Beltran, and 20-year-old composer Mariode, who is part of the game-inspired DESKPOP music collective.
The result is nothing short of a whole new world.
HoloVista is the first mobile game of its kind, and naturally, it’s a social media simulator. Players must find and photograph specific things in different environments, which you then upload to Carmen’s social media account. From there, the story unfurls in stages across replies and private messages. Aconite has shrewdly taken one of our most flagrant modern behaviors — consuming the world through our phones — and transformed it into a core game mechanic. The smartphone gyroscope is crucial in suspending disbelief. You can pan around this incredible house as if you’re standing in it and spin around at the bar where you’re doing shots with your friends.
During playtests, Lev and St. Germain noticed just how much people love cameras. “I think the consistent thing is that people light up the first time they see a camera, and it takes them a moment sometimes to register,” Lev tells me in a video call. “My favorite is when people have something in front of them that’s similar or identical to the thing that the camera opens up to. I’ve had people playtest in a hotel, and it opens up to an apartment, and they see a bed in front of them and there’s also a bed in front of them. And it is such a mindfuck.” HoloVista also doesn’t require any hardware or extra gear. “The scenes are great in VR, but not everybody has a headset,” says St. Germain, “and we wanted to make something that was accessible and that people who maybe weren’t in America, or maybe who couldn’t afford an iPhone could do it.”
It’s mindlessly easy to slip into Carmen’s life through the phone, ensconced in a familiar interface of square-cropped pictures and clickable heart icons. She handles awkward romantic tension, sibling rivalry, and a growing sense of anxiety as she finds herself living in Mesmer & Braid’s latest project, Autohaus, an ornate mansion that seems to defy physics and the structural principles that architecture is founded upon. Not only does Autohaus seem to know her memories, but it’s almost baiting her. But even as HoloVista revolves around Carmen’s personal narrative, it has something much bigger to say. “Our game still interrogates a lot of difficult things, like what it’s like to survive under capitalism and retain your authenticity while having this permanent record of everything you do forever on the internet, because you’re trying to also create a personal brand,” says Lev.
HoloVista began as a paper prototype, fueled by an ugly breakup. Lev had been doing what all of us do — putting her best Instagram foot forward — while privately struggling with her feelings. “There was one night I’d gone out and gotten really drunk… and seen my ex-boyfriend with his new girlfriend,” she recalls. “I thought about how all of us are performing all the time on social media and how exhausting that is.” Later, at home, Lev came across an article about how a former Facebook executive, Chamath Palihapitiya, had stopped his kids from using social media. “He knew that his company was using gamification techniques for their products in a way that would make people addicted,” she says. Lev, dwelling on the myriad ways in which games and social media intersect, remembers thinking, “why don’t we make a game out of all of these dysfunctional patterns and make them playful and make fun of them and make a story out of them?”
“Different actions that you would take on social media would cost you things,” St. Germain says of the original board game. “Everybody was really burnt out on social media at that exact moment, just really feeling the weight of the world in this way, and then Cambridge Analytica happened… the whole board game version was just this super tongue-in-cheek like, ‘You stayed up all night stalking your ex’s Facebook page: lose two spaces. You got into a political argument with your crazy uncle: move back three spaces.’”
While baby HoloVista came from a place of exhaustion that St. Germain jokingly described as “a really cranky version of things,” two years on, Lev thinks they’ve managed to hit a balanced approach between reality and escapism. She recalled an early story that the team used to battle-test mechanics: “It was about a girl getting canceled on social media for writing a tone-deaf article, and she was just like a hapless intern and she was maybe thrown under the bus by her editors. And we walked away from that line of inquiry because we felt it was too real, and that after dealing with it in real life, people would want, if they’re playing a social media simulator, to be taken to a different place.”
Aconite tried dozens of prototype experiments before landing on the current form of HoloVista. And in helping craft its final form, St. Germain drew on her theatre design background. “When we landed on the idea that the character was gonna be an architect, I threw myself face-first into this idea of creating a memory palace,” St. Germain explains, referring to an ancient mnemonic visualization technique used to help improve one’s memory. “Because it’s a hidden object game, it just felt like a really natural fit… so that’s been one of my major inspirations in the project, is how to have a conversation with the space and the things in it, and how that relates to your own inner feelings and thoughts and memories.”
As transmedia veterans, Lev and St. Germain have a wealth of inspirations for HoloVista, including Spike Jonze’s Her, Black Mirror, and games like The Red Strings Club and Nier: Automata. One of Lev’s biggest shoutouts is a 2016 short film called Hyper-Reality where everyone has an interactive heads-up display in a near-future version of Medellin, Colombia. “I appreciate [media depictions of the future] in which things are understated and portrayals in which not literally everything is made to look futuristic, because a lot of the time those are the ones that end up looking dated... I feel like a lot of near-future portrayals are copies of copies of copies. There’s definitely a formula that dips a little bit into old Blade Runner territory, and a little bit into whatever trends we have today. And you know it when you see it and it’s boring.” St. Germain, an avid gamer, noted various other games that wade into the waters of social media issues — Orwell, A Normal Lost Phone, Simulacra — but believes Aconite is technologically ahead of the curve. ”There are definitely other people exploring in this space in games,” she said. “But none of them have a mixed reality element going on. I would say that’s probably the thing that we’re adding to the mix that’s like a new fresh kick.”
Although HoloVista’s appeal relies on a loop of familiar design patterns — the routine of reacting to likes and recognizable icons — it’s imperative to shake things up. “I feel like the way that we create new ways to interact with each other online is to just invent new design patterns and embrace them,” St. Germain muses. “And I think that’s going to change a lot with hardware, too… there are people creating new really experimental UI patterns, like the Radial Games guys when they did Fantastic Contraption. They put the inventory in a cat that followed you around and you would pet it and pick it up and pull things off of it. It’s that kind of creativity and willingness to explore new territory that is going to save us from the same patterns over and over again.”
Familiar design breeds familiar behavior, and this comfortable intimacy is a big part of HoloVista’s appeal. But at its beating heart is the ghost of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan — one of Aconite’s promo emails includes a video of his Mirror Stage theory — adding a new layer of meaning in the way we perceive ourselves and the world around us. And with technology at the forefront of modern living, it’s infinitely more complicated to understand who we are with so many refracted versions of ourselves in different apps, social channels, and platforms. In the game, Carmen’s sister, Inez, is a “fitspo” yoga influencer with a strong following, yet she seems restless and unhappy. Mainstream reliance on social media as a tool for understanding ourselves has created a simmering breed of resentment and anxiety that one writer has dubbed a “techxistential crisis.” Through Carmen’s messages with her popular, successful friends, it’s clear that everyone has a dragon’s hoard of private anxieties.
HoloVista’s kinship with influencer culture is one of its most prescient narrative strengths, especially when it comes to virtual influencers. While dozens of digital celebrities, including Liam Nikuro and Noonoouri, have popped up over the past few years, Lil Miquela, an Instagram sensation created by transmedia agency Brud, reigns supreme with over 2 million followers. “We’re actually good friends with the folks that make Lil Miquela, and we consider ourselves to be allies with them in reality-bending storytelling,” says Lev, pointing out that Miquela’s team was inspired by HG Wells’ War of the Worlds. First published in 1897, the alien invasion classic made history when a 1938 radio adaptation of the story caused mass hysteria. “When it went on the air, people thought it was real,” says St. Germain. “It does get at the heart of what both of our companies are trying to do: take the most interesting bits about storytelling and the most interesting bits about reality, and kind of put them together in a container that allows you to suspend your disbelief.”
In experimenting with the kind of future we want to have, Aconite has big plans for building new worlds, whether it’s in pixels or a physical place. But even with this platform founded on emerging technologies, Lev’s vision for the future of storytelling has its roots in good old-fashioned larping (live-action roleplaying) — specifically, the kind of suspended disbelief that’s only possible through the veil of fiction.
“When I grew up in the Soviet Union, my parents... had this like J.R.R. Tolkien Middle Earth LARP Club,” she recalled. “There wasn’t any guide on how to LARP because they were behind the Iron Curtain. Everything was very homebrewed.” Within this bootleg microcosm of Middle-earth, amid a broadly homophobic culture, were two characters in a queer relationship. “Everyone was like, that’s fine, cool, no problem,” she said. “It was a very beautiful romance with a lot of real tender feelings behind it that never would have had community support in Russia otherwise... but within the magic circle of the game, things became OK that aren’t OK in real life.”
When it comes to mixed reality, it seems that all roads lead back to the large-scale impact of Pokémon Go, as the small magic circle of a homebrewed larp can now easily extend to millions of people with a smartphone and an internet connection. Within the conceit of a game or a fictive reality, perhaps we can imagine a better world for ourselves — Lev certainly thinks so.
“I think that if we have networked gameplay that is on a big enough scale, I’m imagining something like what my parents had in Russia as a LARP, but like a hundred times bigger. I think that we can try new experiments for how to coexist as a society within that magic circle,” she says “Because there are a lot of systems that are breaking, that aren’t sustainable, that don’t meet the needs of certain people in a society. But I hope, whether it’s Aconite or whether it’s someone else, we get playful experiences that are that complex, that large, that cross-cultural, in which people can try new systems on for size in a playful and experimental way.”
Correction. This article originally claimed the game was coming to Android in June; it is currently only slated for iOS with no specific release date.